Xavier McKinney's rookie campaign did not go as expected.
The Giants spent the 36th overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft on the versatile safety from Alabama and it appeared as if McKinney was headed towards a significant role in the team's defense. But a foot injury suffered at the end of training camp sent him to injured reserve and forced him to miss the first 10 games of the season.
Although he was unable to get on the field for a large chunk of the season, McKinney was still very much a part of the secondary. The coaching staff had him sit in on every meeting and participate in getting ready for the game plan each week, ensuring his mental preparation while rehabbing.
The injury, in addition to the lack of preseason games, may have delayed McKinney's development as a defensive back. But after playing in the final six games of the season, McKinney finally felt like he was hitting his stride.
"As far as being out there and playing, it took me a while to get going, especially just knowing all of the rotations that we were doing," McKinney said last week. "Then feeling like, especially these last couple of games, I was getting back into my groove. That's why I was really hoping we could make it to the playoffs, because I felt like I was getting back to being myself. I still think there was a lot more that I could have done. When I look back at the film, there was a lot of other plays that I felt like I missed out on that I could have made. It was kind of frustrating knowing that I was getting back into my rhythm and then all of a sudden, that's the season."
Even though he wasn't able to keep his late-season momentum going with a playoff game, McKinney did all that he could to put the Giants in a position to make the postseason with his performance against Dallas in Week 17.
The Giants needed a win over the Cowboys to keep their playoff hopes alive and the 21-year-old played a season-high 73 defensive snaps (89 percent). Prior to Week 17, McKinney had not played more than 43 defensive snaps in a game. In the extended action, he matched his previous high from the week before with eight total tackles (four solo) while picking up his first tackle for a loss and a pass defended. McKinney also registered the first turnover of his career, intercepting Andy Dalton in the end zone to seal the victory with 1:15 to play.
"It was a must-win game for us," McKinney explained. "Going into that game, preparing the way we prepared, being ready for a lot of different things, I thought the plays that I made, I made them at the right time. I've been telling you guys, I felt that play coming. I felt like there were a couple of ones I missed in previous weeks. To get it in this game knowing how big of a game it was, it was definitely something I was excited about. I'm definitely ready to build off of that game once we come back."
As for the Giants missing the playoffs, McKinney said the players had only themselves to blame.
"We had opportunities to get the job done," he said. "I've always been told for as long as I can remember, don't ever put your destiny in somebody else's hands. For us, we know what we could have done better. We know that we had opportunities to win games and that we didn't win. At the end of it, that's the reason why we didn't get to where we wanted to get to."
The Giants will return their main components in the secondary next season. McKinney, as well as James Bradberry, Logan Ryan, Darnay Holmes and Julian Love are under contract, in addition to Isaac Yiadom, Madre Harper and several others.
They make up a room that features a nice combination of experienced players, each of whom have shown they are willing to do whatever it takes to help the team win. It's their hard work that has McKinney excited for the future.
"Obviously, we have a lot of guys that are willing to do what we need to do to improve as a secondary, as a whole, as a unit, and I think we're ready to do that," McKinney said. "The biggest thing for us this off-season will be just building that chemistry because I feel like we didn't really get to do that at its fullest potential just because I was out the first 11, 12 weeks. We didn't really get to build all together.
"This off-season is going to be big for us because we're going to be able to do that. We're going to have more time to do that. We have a lot of guys that work hard. I think we have a bright future ahead if I'm being completely honest. We just need to be willing to put in the work and willing to get better and help each other out, hold each other accountable like we do. I think we have a bright future."
The Giants finished the season with the NFL's ninth-best defense in points allowed. They were also tied for fifth in the league by allowing only 22 passing touchdowns. Following McKinney's return, the Giants held opponents to an average of 20.2 points and 205 passing yards per game over the final six outings, both of which would rank in the Top 5 if done over the course of an entire season. It's enough to see a bright future in the forecast.
View photos of Giants first-year safety Xavier McKinney.